The 3 Laws All Actors Must Follow
Today, we’re talking about the very important laws of Composition, what they are, why they’re important, and how you can use these to create more detailed, nuanced performances on stage and in film.
Again, Chekhov did not create anything new with these laws and they can seem obvious when you think about them, but all too many actors don’t think about them when creating a role and it ultimately keeps them from finding a sense of truth in their performances that is both dynamically engaging, specifically nuanced, and imbued with a maximum feeling of authenticity.
Again, these laws are essential in the work of any performing artist and an actor ignores these laws at their peril. If these laws are ignored, the actor’s work can be bland, one-note, lacking in specifics, and worst of all clichéd. An actor must avoid clichéd acting at all cost. What I mean by that is acting a role the way it is “supposed to be” instead of acting that is experienced truthfully moment-to-moment. Acting that is surprising and that can be surprising even to the actor themself. This is the kind of acting that is electric and inspired. That is the goal we seek as performing artists/artists that perform.
The first Law of Composition is the Law of Triplicity. This is the principle that things tend to come in three’s and that the number “3” is the most satisfying, complete, and useful number to the artist.
Think about it. We use the rule of three in comedy, in writing, in music, in art, and much more. In comedy, three is essential in that:
We reinforce the pattern
Then we pay it off.
Any comedian will tell you that comedy comes in threes.
In writing, there is a beginning, middle, and end.
In music, most choruses are sung three times.
In art, there is a rule of thirds in which artists place items in intersections of third lines in order to draw more attention to their artwork.
Blockbuster movies tend to come in trilogies.
We remember the Three Musketeers, even though there were four.
There are three little pigs, three bears, and three blind mice.
Famous people are said to die in threes.
Triplicity is here, there, and everywhere, morning, noon, and night, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, in the past, the present, and the future.
Get the idea?
For the actor, using this principle can be very useful. In every play, movie, scene, or monologue there are three parts: the beginning, middle, and end. One of the biggest mistakes actors, particularly beginning actors, make is playing the end at the beginning.
If the monologue ends with a stunning revelation or emotional climax, the actor may make the mistake of already playing it before it has happened. When I see monologues for example, in which the actor is crying or yelling from the very beginning, this is a strong indicator that the actor is playing the end before they have arrived at the end.
At the same time, the monologue seems incomplete if there hasn’t been a tangible and visible emotional transition from beginning to the middle to the end. In other words, a scene or monologue can’t be stuck at the beginning. There has to be middle point of transition. And the end has to happen where it belongs, at the end.
Actors work in the medium of “SPECIFICS” and, as such, the actor must be clear about the form of the work, where they are within the work as a whole, and how they are using that form to create a complete, fully realized character.
Michael Chekhov guru, Leonard Petit stresses that “Everything that needs understanding uses form”. This means "the play, the scene, the monologue, the stage, the scenery, the props, the sound, even our fellow actors".
As you begin to awaken your consciousness of your use of form as an actor, you will grow to be dissatisfied with any movements, gestures, speeches, feelings, thoughts, or internal and external actions that are vague or shapeless. You will notice it in yourself as an actor and in others as a spectator. You will strive to make sure that each moment you are playing has a strong sense of form in and of itself.
Again, it is important, even before you begin working in earnest, that the play, film, scene, or monologue that you are working on has a beginning, middle, and end. As you work, you will then notice that there is a beginning to the beginning, a middle to the beginning, and an end to the beginning. You may then notice that there is a beginning to the beginning of the beginning, a middle to the beginning of the beginning, and an end to the beginning of the beginning. And so on right down to the micro-beat of the work itself.
Each of those individual beats call for a specific and truthful responses from an actor who is living authentically moment to moment to moment. What’s more, it is important for the actor to recognize that there is a beginning, middle, and end to the character they are playing which brings us to the next Law of Composition: The Law of Polarity.
Chekhov says that “In any true piece of art (in our case an inspired performance), the beginning and the end are, or should be, polar in principal.” In other words, where you begin must be different from where you end, not only different but its polar opposite. If it is not, it’s, well…boring. Uninteresting. Not artistic.
As spectators, we desire to see a character’s journey. Luke Skywalker starts an innocent farmboy and ends as a...space-milk drinking wierdo.
Frodo Baggins starts as an innocent young nobody and ends as hero/savior of Middle Earth. Hamlet starts as an indecisive, over-thinking student and ends as a man of action and king-slayer.
We must end up in a different place than where we begin. Think of throwing a ball. How do you throw the ball? Do you start with the ball as close as possible to the target or as far away as possible? Without the wind-up, there is no pitch. The ball fails to reach the target. For actors, that target is inspired acting.
Not only is this important with the form as a whole but finding polar forces within the character or style of the piece is also enormously helpful in creating truthful moments. Michael Shurtleff, in his book, Audition calls this “Finding the Opposites” but the spirit is much the same.
If I am playing a largely tragic scene, then it is essential that I find the comedy or humor of that scene. Not for fun. Not as an exercise in just being different for different’s sake. But because that’s how it works in real life.
Some of the biggest laughs we can have can occur during a fight with a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or a friend. It happens all the time. People cry when they are happy. People say the meanest things to people they care about the most. This is life. This is truth.
Finding and playing the polarity of the scene even just once during rehearsal can lead to interesting and surprising choices that can and will result in dynamic and exciting performances. Playing the polarity in auditions can separate you from other more clichéd portrayals and Get. You. The. Part.
If your character is, overall, a confident person. Find moments when they aren’t. If the character is positive, find moments when they might be negative.
Richard the Third is one of the most blatantly evil characters Shakespeare wrote, but for the actor, true nuance only occurs when they find moments of kindness and love that the character can exhibit as well. It may ultimately be false and he may eventually betray those moments with other action, but within that moment, it must be true and be allowed to live truthfully.
So far, we have covered that each scene, monologue, play, or film must be broken up into sets of three and that where the character begins must be polar to where they end. This brings us to the third Law of Composition which is Transformation.
If Triplicity is the bones of composition, and Polarity its life-blood, then transformation is the muscle and connective tissue that makes our work vital and alive. It exists at the middle point within each beat or moment of the life of your character. It lives only through listening truthfully, receiving and discovering new data by the actor both externally through the atmosphere of the work and scene partners, and internally through moments of discovery and internal emotional action that the character experiences throughout its artistic life.
It is the “How” of the character. How do I move from point A to point B to point C and so on. The “How” should be the sole focus of the actor as they work through each rehearsal. Only through truthful internal and external action can the question of “How” be answered. You need not articulate it verbally. The actor answers the questions that transformation poses through their body and their voice.
T. P. T. What my dear mentor, Lisa Dalton calls "Teepee Tea". These three Laws of Composition follow the artist/actor everywhere in their work. From the tiniest beat to the entirety of an epic movie trilogy. It is vital that the Laws of Composition be followed, explored, and executed.
Here’s a brief exercise, I would like you to try when you are finished reading this blog. As you are existing in your space try to break each action you take into three distinct parts. For example:
I am sitting. I am getting up. I am up.
I am grabbing my cup of coffee. I am lifting it to my lips. I have drank a sip of coffee.
I am at the far end of the room. I am walking. I am at the other end of the room.
And so on.
Try to experience each moment artistically. Be conscious of the polarity of each action and each tiny detail of transformation that leads you from one polarity to the next.
Again, the more the actor experiences each moment in specific creative detail the more they can harness this ability to use in their work to create distinct moment-to-moment nuance on stage and in film.
What do you think of TeePee Tea? Do you agree that all art must follow these laws of composition? What happens if you break these laws? Do you go to Acting Jail? Let me know in the comments.
See you guys later.